LEXINGTON — University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops is waiting for mental maturity to catch up with his Wildcats’ considerable physical talents and football savvy.
This might be a critical week for that to happen if Kentucky (1-4 overall, 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference) hopes to stay in the game against No. 1-ranked Alabama (5-0, 2-0).
Kickoff is at 7 Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium, with the game televised on ESPN2.
The Wildcats are coming off a 35-28 loss at 13th-ranked South Carolina, while Alabama’s Crimson Tide hasn’t lost seemingly since the Bush administration.
Alabama cruised by Georgia State, 45-3, last Saturday.
“I just hope we continue to understand that we can win these games,” said Stoops, whose team is facing its fourth consecutive top 20 opponent. “You know, it’s not just me up here talking about that. If we truly believe, if we go about our business, if we work the right way, if we prepare the right way and execute and make plays when the game is on the line...”
Stoops paused and said his team had “every opportunity” to win the game at South Carolina.
Two calls by the officials, particularly a late “12-men-on-the-field” call that went against the Wildcats, didn’t help.
Stoops called SEC director of officials Steve Shaw both Sunday and Monday, and said that Shaw confirmed the officials blew both that call and another call that went against UK earlier in the game when it appeared the Wildcats had successfully converted a third-and-1 play.
But, falling behind 21-0 to the Gamecocks was than any one call by the officials. Or two calls, even.
In other words, Stoops isn’t suggesting that the officiating cost his team the game at USC.
“That’s a very good team, very well coached, and we have a lot of respect for them,” Stoops said of the Gamecocks. “But if we had done some things right, we could have won that game.
“I know every coach can say that. Every coach can say there are always things they can do better. But there were plays with the game on the line that we can execute much better, and a lot of it is mental. We need to be mentally stronger and make plays and understand and have a better awareness about us when we are on the field.”
Stoops was asked Monday if it’s tougher to get young guys to believe they can win games against these upper echelon SEC teams.
“I like the attitude of our young guys,” Stoops replied. “I don’t think the atmosphere is too big for them. I think they embrace it. They enjoy playing.
“With freshmen, the problem is inconsistency. You know, with young guys, we drive them awful hard, and we need them to play well for us. It’s different than sprinkling them in here and there. We push them so hard mentally and physically, and unfortunately with that, you get some inconsistent play. But their attitude is good, and they are very competitive guys.”
Stoops expects the atmosphere to be electric Saturday night, with a lot of fans starting the day at Keeneland or simply tailgating at Commonwealth, with college football royalty — Alabama — in town for the first time since 2009.
The last time Kentucky played the No. 1 team here, of course, was in 2007 when the Wildcats upset LSU, 43-37, in three overtimes.
UK officials said Monday that fewer than 100 tickets remain for the general public for the Alabama game, though some unused student tickets will also be available. Call 1-800-928-2287 for ticket information.
“It will be a great atmosphere,” Stoops said. “I’m looking forward to it. It will be a real challenge, but it should be a lot of fun for us as a staff and for our players to embrace such a challenge.”
UK NOTES: Stoops and staff ditched the two-quarterback system at USC and went exclusively with Jalen Whitlow.
Whitlow rewarded that trust by going 17 of 24 passing, for 178 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed 17 times for 69 yards and a touchdown.
“He missed some things ... he missed some throws,” Stoops said of Whitlow. “But he did some very good things as well. It was nice to see him compete. It was nice to see him run. He ran physical at times, and he made some better decisions.
“I think, overall, that was a real positive, and I think it gives us a little confidence moving forward”...
...UK will honor former football great Steve Meilinger at halftime of the Alabama game. Meilinger, 83, is going into the College Football Hall of Fame Dec. 10 in New York.
He played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky from 1951-53, becoming a two-time first-team All American and three time first team, All-SEC performer.
Meilinger was known as “Mr. Anywhere” at Kentucky. On offense, he played wide receiver, halfback and quarterback, and on defense he played linebacker and defensive back. He also punted, and returned punts and kickoffs...
...Franklin County grad Ryan Timmons continues to impress. Timmons scored his first college touchdown Saturday night, on a 14-yard reception from Whitlow early in the fourth quarter that brought the Wildcats within six at 27-21.
On the season Timmons has 19 receptions for 209 yards, and he’s rushed eight times for 92 yards.